Sunday, 15 August 2010

Big scoop - Ivor Gurney premiere Three Choirs

The big news at this year's Three Choirs Festival at Gloucester was the premiere of Ivor Gurney's A Gloucestershire Rhapsody. Gurney is hardly unknown. He's one of the most prominent First World War poets. He's on the school curriculum, so even 16 year olds know who he is. He's also famous as a composer of songs. So when Three Choirs presents his orchestral music, it's a major scoop.

"What Gurney orchestral music?" one might ask, as Ian Venables prefaced his talk at Cheltenham Town Hall on 12th August 2010.  It's known that Gurney wrote quite a bit, including two symphonies, and even planned an opera based on  J M Synge's Riders to the Sea, later set by Ralph Vaughan Williams. But in the disruptions of Gurney's life, unpublished manuscripts went missing. Fragments remain, though, and now the Gurney Archive at Gloucester is being carefully mined by Ian Venables (himself a composer), and Philip Lancaster.

There's enough of  Gurney's A Gloucestershire Rhapsody for Venables and Lancaster, both Gurney specialists, to produce a performing version for orchestra. Gurney began the piece around 1919, after returning from the trenches, and completed it in 1921. Nearly ninety years later, it received its premiere with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Martyn Brabbins.

Provocatively, Gurney starts with the same first bars as Richard Strauss Also sprach Zarathustra -  a dramatic opening, but with a twist. Gurney deliberately wanted to counteract "The Prussians" and what they stood for. Understandable for a man who served throughout the war, though Strauss wasn't fond of "Prussians" either, being Bavarian.

The horns give way to a pastorale in which Gurney evokes the Gloucestershire countryside, with its rolling hills and spacious horizons. It's primeval. To Gurney, past and present connected in seamless flow. The ghosts of prehistoric hunters, Romans, medieval farmers, depicted in a bucolic dance theme. "Two thousand centuries of change, and strange people".

An ostinato section suggests both the heavy march of Time and the men of Gloucestershire marching innocently to slaughter on the Somme. I inherited a photo of an ancestor marching to war, passing under a shop sign that read "Butchers". Gurney said that what kept him going in the trenches was the thought of commemorating these men in poetry and music. A short, chaotic "war" section then gives way to a beautifully expansive theme, which might evoke a glorious dawn after a night of horror. It's Elgarian, in the sense of grandeur, but also Gurneyesque in that it's not triumphalist, but tender. This "dawn" opens on a gentle landscape in which you could imagine hedgerows and birds.  Nature returns, and time moves on.

A Gloucestershire Rhapsody is fascinating becuase it offers a glimpse of what Gurney might have achieved. The five sections might even have been a prototype for a more ambitious symphony. It is important and deserves much more attention than it's had from the national press, for whom the whole Three Choirs ethos seems an unknown world.  The BBC to its credit ran a news story on it. Three Choirs has always supported new music - they discovered Elgar and RVW for instance - and Mendelssohn, and Handel.  They even featured  Charles Ives a few years ago, and this year John Joubert's An English Requiem.  No doubt, if Gurney's larger orchestral and choral works had survived, he'd have been heard in the Cathedrals before now. Gurney's The Trumpet, also reconstructed by Philip Lancaster, received its premiere on 13th August in Gloucester, where Gurney sang as a chorister a hundred years ago,

Contrary to received wisdom, Gurney wasn't entirely denied music when he was locked in the asylum. At the Gurney Conference in Cambridge in 2008, there was an excellent paper based on research into hospital and other archives, which gives a tantalizing glimpse of pianos to which Gurney might have had access. In the 1920's and 30's, society didn't understand mental illness and PTSD. Veterans from Afghanistan don't get the help they deserve, so Gurney's tragedy is still relevant today.

Fortunately, Venables, Lancaster and the Ivor Gurney Archives at Gloucester may give Gurney the respect that he is due. Below is a short clip of another Gurney fragment, the slow movement for piano and violin from a larger, but unfinished work, premiered at Gresham College, which has been providing public services to learning, free, for nearly 500 years. .

1 comment:

Dodorock said...

I listened to this violin piece that made me think of similar works by Lekeu or Debussy. I made these connexions as I felt the music speaking in a familiar idiom, undemonstratively. Thank you